Thursday, November 13, 2014

Winter Races In

Don't let this photo fool you. This sun-drenched scene of morning glories growing on the back of the compost bin simply made me sigh with longing.
We are currently deep into the first week of January. Yes, I know, we haven't hit Thanksgiving yet. The weather, however, seems to think that it is January, or at least late December.

On Monday I worked outdoors in jeans and a shirt, and was still a bit too warm. It felt like May.
On Tuesday, we lit a fire in the stove and have not let it go out since. Lows in the teens and highs in the mid-20s to low 30s. And it will get colder yet with Monday night's (actually, Tuesday morning's) low in the single digits. Not November weather at all.

Hedge apples lodged in the crook of the hedge tree trunk.
So I spent Monday morning removing the frost blanket from the low tunnels, watering and draping plastic over the hoops, with an extra bit of cover inside the low tunnel for good measure. As the lows deepened this week, I started draping extra sheets and blankets over the low tunnels. Tomorrow I will harvest more lettuce and put the extra covers inside so they don't get wet and heavy with Saturday's snowfall. A little on the early side for snow, too.

On the up side, the temperatures will climb by the middle of next week.

It was a lovely autumn, though. I spent many a warm autumn afternoon listening to the gentle thunk, thunk, thud of the hedge apples falling. I don't know how many wheelbarrow loads I carted to the edge of the woods, but it's hard to believe one tree can produce so much. Fortunately, only one of the two hedge -- aka Osage orange -- trees in our yard is female and fruit producing. The other is male, so it just pollinates.

One of today's tasks in preparation for the coming cold was to insulate the fig trees. While the roots of these trees will survive our Kansas winters, the upper portions will winterkill, so they must be protected against the cold if you want to get figs. Usually, this would be done a bit later, but usually, the temperatures drop a bit more slowly. I figured that another couple of nights in the teens and then 7 degrees F might be too much. So I stacked haybales (freshly cut this year) and plastic garbage bags stuffed with ripped up row cover around the figs, then draped the constructions with tarps and tied it all down (well enough, I hope) with used baling twine.

The fig trees are trained horizontally, in a free-standing espalier form -- free standing because they are not against a wall. This photo is of the larger and older of the two fig trees. Ideally, it would be in the center of the trellis, but I started it as a one-sided espalier running east and west. It now runs sort of north and south to better accommodate the second fig, and the planting area would not handle a third post further north of the trunk. This photo obviously shows the tree during warmer days.

Some day I might even get figs.

Even though winter has come hard and fast, I feel blessed by this growing season. Both of the small freezers are full. Kale and other cole crops still stand in the garden, and I hope keep standing. Freshly washed lettuce is draining in the sink. Remnants of summer -- dried tomatoes and eggplant -- sit in the pantry.

A few days ago I dug the roots of ashwaganda, an Ayurvedic herb that I grew for the first time this year. One quart and one pint of ashwaganda tincture steeps on the pantry shelf, alongside the echinacea tincture I started in July.

The house is warm and the tea kettle whistles, ready to brew homegrown herb tea. Yes, the garden has been good to me.

(At right: One more late summer/early autumn photo. Blossoms of the tropical milkweed that hosted several Monarch butterfly larvae. However, the bug peering from the blooms is a red and black milkweed bug, which looks suspiciously like a box elder bug, but isn't.)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Happy Autumn

The Autumn Equinox has passed and we are dipping deeper into the dark half of the year.

Roots dig, dig, dig as leaves shrivel.

We dig deep...


We dig...

Sweet Potatoes!

This is my harvest from a mere 13 plants in a 15x3.5-foot bed. I did nothing to the sweet potato plants all year except plant them and water them for a couple of weeks, and put bird netting over them to keep the deer and bunnies from nibbling their tender tops. After that... nothing until I dug them.

Oh, I did prune back the vines when they started to escape the bird netting.

Sweet potatoes require lean soil, so you don't have to fertilize them, and little water. Unless it's dry for a long time, they need nothing more than the rainfall. Few pests and diseases plague them. Only foliage nibbling critters. And most people do nothing to protect the batata vines.

All of my resources recommend curing the sweet potatoes at 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit. By this time of year, we are well past those temperatures. However, a local market grower told me he cures his at room temperature. Good enough for me. I am not going to -- as some sources suggest -- run a space heater in a room to cure the sweeties.

Curing is important because it converts starches to sugars, making the roots taste even better. It also helps seal those inevitable nicks from the digging fork, which are nearly impossible to avoid. To make the less likely, stick the fork in at least a foot from the center of the plant. But even that isn't a guarantee.

And don't forget to attend the nearest sweet potato festivities. October has been declared Sweet Potato Month here and several events are planned in Lawrence, Kansas (perhaps elsewhere, too, but I know nothing about them). The events include a community sweet potato potluck in early November. Visit the Celebrate Sweet Potatoes -- Lawrence, KS Facebook page to share and find sweet potato recipes and learn about events here. Then look for when the new Web site is complete and online to learn even more. Celebrate Autumn. Celebrate sweet potatoes.

Saturday, September 13, 2014


Things move quickly at this time of year.
Just 10 days ago I found this Monarch butterfly chrysalis hanging from a screen door on the front porch. I knew that is was a Monarch chrysalis (moths make cocoons) because just the day before I took this photo I had seen the caterpillar in its familiar striped suit hanging upside down from that same spot. Its head was slightly curled up as it waited for its skin to harden.

Nearby, some of its siblings or cousins were busily munching on the tropical milkweed, waiting for their own metamorphosis.

All of the information I found about Monarchs said that it would remain in chrysalis form for about two weeks, before emerging as a butterfly. Yet, only a week later I went to check on the chrysalis to find it open at the bottom and a new butterfly on the concrete floor below drying its wings. It fluttered to a nearby columbine leaf when I tried to manipulate it into a more picturesque position. You can see a tip of one wing (right) slightly curled from still being damp.

I am privileged to be able to witness this and the many other cycles occurring around me each day.

And now the cycle has turned to autumn. Garden production has slowed. Where I once was fretting about whether I'd get tired of watermelon and cantaloupe, I am now regretting that their season is almost at an end.

Such are the cycles of life.

Monday, August 11, 2014

August's Bounty

Summer's bounty: trombocino and yellow crookneck summer squashed, eggplant, okra and long beans.
We had not yet arrived at the Summer Solstice when I made my last post, and now we are well ensconced in August. But a relatively cool August (mid- to upper 80s F.) with 3 inches of rain so far this month, unusual.
Following the strawberries featured in the last post, I picked what few black raspberries were produced, then tore out all my plants so I could start a new bed well away from the blackberries. Black raspberries suffer from a virus carried by blackberries, which show little to no signs of problems. So, sigh, starting over again.

The blackberries started producing shortly after I started picking black raspberries, and are still giving me berries because this is a primocane variety. Blueberries also started coming on at about that time and have just finished. I am happy to report that my freezer contains several bags of all but the black raspberries. These will serve us during the winter. Right now, we have moved on to other fruit.

These Liberty apples will ripen in October.
We got a fairly nice crop of summer apples -- William's Pride, which ripens in August. The apples have had much less pest damage than we expected, since we did no protective sprays this year. I suspect that our late freezes had a little to do with the lower level of pest pressure. William's Pride apple store for only about a month, so we will need to eat, cook or dry them over the next few weeks.

And cantaloupe!

As I frantically harvested and processed and gave away produce last week in preparation for being gone from Thursday through the weekend, I watched the melon patch. I ate a couple of small watermelons, but the cantaloupes remained green.

An unripe Kansas cantaloupe.
On Wednesday evening I went out to assess the lettuce and discovered about a half dozen orange cantaloupes in the bed next door. What was I going to do with all this cantaloupe? Refrigerator space was not available.

I made a produce run, delivering melons and cucumbers to friends. This seems to be an excellent year for melons, as the cantaloupes and watermelons are producing quite well. Cantaloupe varieties are Kansas (which has done well for me in the past), Old Greek (a football shaped melon) and American Melon, which has a longer (French?) name that I can't remember, but which means Green Fleshed Pineapple. When I cut open the first of these last ones to ripen, I was disappointed. It was green inside -- not ripe, I thought. But it was soft and fragrant and sweet-tasting. I looked at the packet and realized that all was as it should be. I'll talk about my watermelons in a later post.

Salt and Pepper pickling cucumber.
And cucumbers. For some reason I had been under the impression my husband did not care if I made pickles this year, we had a few jars left from last year and did not seem to be eating them very quickly. So I planted fewer cucumbers than usual. Then a few weeks ago he decided that, yes, we should have pickles. (The son-in-law loves pickles we discovered and they can be expensive.) Not to worry, though. The few vines I had planted produced more than enough for pickles. Plus, I always plant succession, so more vines are coming into production.

Fifteen pints and eight quarts of vinegar pickles and 3 quarts of fermented pickles, plus 3 quarts of "quick pickles that can be eaten right away -- so far. I will give you my pickle recipe at the end of this post.

Tomatoes and eggplant also are quite prolific. The Amish Paste tomatoes will not be canned, but were planted expressly to dry, since I have plenty of canned sauce from last year and no dried tomatoes left. The eggplant also goes into my solar dehydrator to make eggplant chips, which can be tossed into soups or stews, but which we like to eat as snacks.
Carnival Acorn Squash in front of a basket of Sun Gold and
 Black Cherry tomatoes

Some of the summer squash -- Trombocino -- also is being dried into snack veggies, as well as frozen for winter stir fries. Trombocino was touted as being less susceptible to squash bugs. Its fruit is long and curvy and end in a bulb. Tasty. Squash bugs have appeared and turned some of the leaves yellow or wilty, but the plants are doing well. I trained the vines up a trellis, as I did the Carnival acorn squash, which is suffering a little from squash bugs, but still producing. Perhaps the late frosts also reduced the squash bug population this year. I won't expect the same results next year, but I will try.

And so, that should be enough of an update. I've got okra and long beans, too. And the freezer has been nearly filled with an abundant crop of kale, but I will end here, with the pickle recipe, as promised.

4 pounds of 4-inch pickling cucumbers (I like Salt and Pepper, and Miniature White cucumbers)
1/2 cup pickling/canning salt
4 cups water

2 3/4 cups cider vinegar (white, if you prefer)
3 cups water
10 cloves garlic, split
10 heads (or 5 tablespoons) dill seed
5 tablespoons yellow mustard seed
2 1/2 tablespoons coriander seed
Black peppercorns

All seeds should be whole. NOT ground. Wash and slice cucumbers and place into a container (I use a 2-gallon crock). Mix salt with 4 cups water and pour over cucumber slices. Place a plate on top and weight with a jar(s) of water so liquid will cover the cucumbers (don't worry, in a few minutes the slices will squish down enough). Let stand for 2 hours, then drain and rinse.
Sterilize 5 pint jars and keep hot in 200 degree oven. Mix water and vinegar in a pan, add garlic and bring to a boil. As vinegar/water reaches a boil remove garlic, add cucumbers and bring to a boil again. As you wait for the cucumber slices to boil, take out hot jars and place two pieces of garlic and 1 tablespoon each of dill seed (or two heads) and mustard seed in each jar, 1/2 tablespoon coriander and several peppercorns. Using a canning funnel, pack cucumber slices into jars, gently pressing down as you go. All slices should fit into the jars with at least 1/2 inch head space (space between cukes and top of jar). Then add vinegar/water to cover cukes, leaving 1/2 inch head space.
Wipe rims and threads clean, place hot lids on jars and tightly screw on bands. Process for 5 minutes in boiling water bath. Remove and let cool overnight before removing rings and storing.
If using quarts, this amount will fill just 4 jars with vinegar left over, so you can use more cucumbers (with proper amount of salt and water). Or do as I do and make quick pickles by adding seasonings and more garlic, cucumber slices and boiling for about 5 or 10 minutes. Place in containers and refrigerate when cooled. Use within two or three weeks.
To make hot pickles, add split or chunked hot peppers to vinegar water with garlic and remove when you remove garlic. Eliminate dill seed, but use mustard and coriander and peppercorns, with a sprinkling of cumin seed. How many peppers to used depends on the peppers and the amount of heat you desire. Divide peppers evenly among jars as you do the garlic. Then follow rest of directions.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Strawberries, Strawberries, Strawberries

This season's features are "Strawberries, Strawberries, Strawberries," and "Monster Kale."
This is the first year of production for my little strawberry patch and it has been delightful. I can eat my fill of strawberries every day, and three gallons of the red gems have been put in the freezer... so far. Strawberries in December! I prefer whole strawberries to jam, but, who knows? I may make some anyway. The berries are so abundant. This K-State Extension publication provides good info on strawberry cultivation. The varieties in my garden are Earliglow, Surecrop and Eclair. Eclair has been disappointing, so I will remove it and make way for a better variety to be planted in a couple of years. This Mother Earth News article also has some good info on strawberries.

And the kale! The Tuscan kale, aka "lacinato kale," and "dinosaur kale" gives me giant leaves now. The basket in the picture of kale is approximately 20 inches (about 50 centimeters) long, to give you an idea how large some of the leaves are. Lacinato is a beefy kale with a rich flavor and does best in warmer weather. It does not stand up to the cold as well as some other kales, but I still plant it in the fall.

When the kale was still fairly small, a few weeks after I put it in the ground, I surrounded each plant with eggshells to thwart snails and slugs and then fertilized it with some blood meal that had been sitting in the cabinet for a while. I think I got the blood meal for thwarting bean-eating bunnies. I did the same to the broccoli and cauliflower. I don't remember ever having such large lacinato. I've been able to put kale in the freezer, as well as eat it regularly. This kale is under row cover to protect against cabbage white butterflies and their larvae. Collards and kale in another covered bed came down with a serious case of aphids, so the row cover is gone and the aphids mostly got washed away with a hard spray of water. Lady bugs and other aphid eaters are now feasting in that bed.

The first planted lettuce gives an abundance. Such a lot of lettuce from such a small patch. It seems it's always nothing or too much with lettuce. And it started raining just in time. It was a dry spring and I thought I was going to have to spend lots of time on irrigation. But June has started with rain every other day. Like with the lettuce, it seems it is either dearth or too much rain.

And PEAS! Finally, peas again. The cutworms and rabbits have decided to let me harvest peas this year, after refusing to let them grow the last two seasons. Of course, I put a little effort into the process. Yay peas!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Creeping Phlox
It's raining this morning.
A blessed welcome rain.
It has been a dry spring so far.

With the roof now washed clean, we will hook up the rain tanks and start collecting water. Preferably, we won't need it, but it's Kansas, and July and August can get terribly hot and dry, even during what were once considered "normal" years.

Asparagus is springing up
We've been paying lots of attention to our fruit trees lately. Most of them are blooming, or have bloomed. The apricot (of course) bloomed too early to escape the last freeze. And it was a hard freeze that we thought might kill all of the flower buds. However, the apples, pears, plums and cherries are blooming, drawing in all the small pollinators.

Peas are popping up, with large gaps in the rows of earliest ones where many seeds simply did not germinate. The cutworms are back, but they seem to be willing to leave me a few peas this year. I put out some damp bran mixed with a bit of Bt to thin the cutworm herd (then went back to my source for the recipe and discovered I should add molasses, as well). Whether that has helped cut the cutworms, or whether the harsh winter reduced their population, I don't know. All I know is that (most likely) I will have peas this year.

On my last post, Leo Posch left a comment advising me to use strips of paper to wrap the lower stems of transplants to thwart cutworms, which cut through the stems, often leaving most of the top portion lying on the ground to die. That's not a practical solution for pea or bean seedlings because they are so numerous and are generally attacked when they are too small for this method. However, I will do this on my tomato transplants instead of using cans and the cardboard rolls inside paper towels and toilet paper. It's a much more practical solution and probably will work even better.

The honey bees have started their spring work with a loud buzz of activity. Both colonies seem to be healthy and thriving. We've put the honey super on one of them, but must acquire a queen excluder before putting the honey super on the other one. We don't want the queen laying eggs in the frames from which we'll harvest honey.

The large stones at the bottom of our flower garden terraces have many indentations that collect water. In years past, we've tried to sweep the water from the rocks to avoid mosquito propagation. However, the honey bees have gathered at these water holes by the dozens. (Photo later.) Like all creatures, they need water, too. So now we are trying to keep some of those indentations filled, a challenge in this warm, windy weather.

The daffodils are beginning to fade and the tulips are bright and cheery. And now, rain.
It's a lovely spring day.
It's time to drink nettle tea.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Brave Soul

I keep checking the weather forecast, hoping it will change.

It does... but for the worst. A few days ago, the lowest low for early next week was 5 degrees F.
Now the lowest low is 1 below zero degrees F, with highs in the low to mid-teens. And before that, we'll face rain, freezing drizzle, sleet and snow.

Every time I look at the forecast, I get depressed.

Yet I keep checking.
Why do I torture myself like this?

And so, today, I must trek to the Post Office because Peaceful Valley thought it would be a good idea to send my trees now. Why don't they give me a way to request a "don't ship before this" date? Other nurseries do, and my other order of trees won't arrive before March 15, which still might be too early this year.

So I check the weather forecast again.
Depressing how I torture myself, isn't it.

On the bright side, this is what my lonely little snowdrop, my ferocious snow-piercer, looks like today. It's head bent against the cold, but the bud beginning to open.
Brave thing.